Sunday, November 19, 2006

James Baker might do well to take a quick break in the Maldives. This holiday destination could be the first liberal democracy in the Islamic world: Such is the claim of reformists in the chain of over 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. Last week pro-democracy groups demonstrated to create the conditions for an “orange revolution.” But prompt police action preserved the current dictatorship.

About 200 islands are inhabited, a paradise for the tens of thousands of upmarket tourists who visit ever year. But underneath the holiday-brochure image, trouble is brewing in this Sunni Muslim state.

Unusual for a 100 percent Islamic society, the Maldives has the world’s highest divorce rate. It is also one of the lowest countries in the world: none of the islands measures more than six feet above sea level. The archipelago is immediately threatened by any rise in the oceans caused by global warming. The December 2004 tsunami killed 82 people. The Maldives is like the canary in a mine: The first warning of catastrophe.

The country’s president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is Asia’s longest-serving leader. He has been in power since 1978. This is a “beach dictatorship,” to use the phrase of novelist Hari Kunzru. Mr. Gayoom’s relatively benign rule has brought a ten-fold increase in the economy for the 340,000 inhabitants, partly because of the tourist boom.

But much of the money goes into Mr. Gayoom’s elaborate patronage system. Some of the boozy holiday islands boast $1,000-a-night rooms, while in the slums of the main island of Male, the capital, Maldivians are living 8-10 people to a cramped room. Unemployment is 40 per cent, especially among the three-quarters of the population which is under 35. Alcohol is strictly prohibited to Muslims, though hard drugs are common.

“We don’t have oil, so the world doesn’t care,” said Mohamed Nasheed, the chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the main opposition group. But he argues that a pro-Western liberal democracy in the Maldives could be a beacon for reform, not least in the Middle East.

The archipelago is roughly 200 miles north of the crucial U.S. base on the British territory of Diego Garcia, and approximately the same distance south from India. Through its three main channels, over $300 billion worth of oil is shipped. The islands were a British protectorate, not least because of its strategic position; it was used as a major imperial military base until full independence in 1965.

Today the Chinese are negotiating for a base there, claims the MDP. India has provided some military support and training, and helped to suppress a 1988 coup attempt led by Sri Lankan mercenaries.

A few of the more remote islands have become radicalized by al Qaeda, and some of the young people in the capital, where the veil has returned in force, are attracted to jihadism. Mr. Gayoom tells the outside world that his regime is a bulwark against Islamic extremism. At home the former Egyptian-trained Islamic cleric plays the religious card for all its worth, though he is not a religious fundamentalist himself. So far, the two Islamic parties on the island have little influence in the Majlis, or parliament, while the opposition party, the MDP, holds a small number of seats in a system dominated by the governing party controlled by Mr. Gayoom.

Amnesty International has regularly condemned suppression of opposition and the use of torture, especially after the anti-government riots in 2003, and the 2004 state of emergency.

The new younger breed of ministers in Mr. Gayoom’s government say that there is a proverbial “road map” to a multi-party democracy. Many of them are anglophiles, educated in the UK. The foreign minister, for example, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, told me that “things are changing fast. The Amnesty reports refer to conditions of two years ago. There have been monumental changes. Then there were no opposition parties, now there are three or four.” He pleaded for his “young country” to be given time.

But the opposition groups consider 28 years to be long enough. Last week they called for a series of protests that were to culminate in a mass rally on Nov. 10. They promised the downfall of the authoritarian system. But the government deployed its small navy to prevent supporters assembling in the capital, including threatening to sink one vessel, while disciplined riot police dispersed protesters already on the small island of Male.

I was in the middle of the protests, and observed police restraint, although opposition leader Nasheed breathlessly told me that it was the presence of my film crew which discouraged police violence. There were also peace monitors from the United States and Europe.

The would-be peaceful revolutionaries called off their revolution because they feared bloodshed, they said. In truth, geography, successful police tactics and perhaps the fear of the inhabitants combined to produce a damp squib.

Nevertheless, the recent protests focused some international attention on the Maldives, and the Gayoom government has pledged to accelerate multi-party democracy.

Maybe the friendly and well-educated people of these beautiful atolls could do what all the military might of the United States could not. Rapid reform, allied to the generally laid-back nature of Maldivian Islamic culture, could create a Western-style liberal democracy. This might ensure a tropical paradise for the locals, as well as foreign tourists.

Paul Moorcraft, director of the Center for Foreign Policy Analysis, was invited to observe the protests. He also produced a film on the Maldives for the Channel 4 network in London.

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